A mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person’s intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences. Mental models can help shape behavior and set an approach to solving problems and doing tasks.
Per Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline:
Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.
To get the most of the business of you, understanding our mental model in any given situation enables us to get the most out of any interaction or experience. For example, when you are talking to your significant other (S.O.), and they mention the “have to do something,” their mental model is showing an assumption that they feel required to do it. The language we use reflects our mental models. We weave words together to share meaning and understanding. Our understanding is built on underlying assumptions of meaning derived from our experience. If we are used to being told what to do at work or at home then our mental model takes on structure having the assumption we are not in control of what we do. What we do is needed by an external system, agency or person. This can lead to a sense of being a victim or out of control. Now, contrast a statement from our S.O. indicating they “want to do something.” This statement has fundamentally different underlying assumptions. Wanting to do something comes from within instead of externally directed.
As indicated in a previous post, our capability of doing work is directly related to our attention, attitude and actions. Our mental models shape our attention, attitude and actions, which in turn affect our ability to meet our goals and objectives. The term mental model may seem onerous or complicated but it is not. All we have to do is to ask ourselves some basic questions.
Is there an image or expectation I have making me feel the way I do about (fill in the blank)? What are the assumptions I have about (fill in the blank)? What holes are there in my understanding of (fill in the blank)?
So, the next time you find yourself in a difficult situation or trying to solve some problem take a moment and ask yourself or others some questions and see if there’s a gap between your mental model and what’s happening. And even more importantly, listen to the answers coming from yourself, others or your environment.